Expats Abroad: The Changing Paradigm

A quiet, empty street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

A quiet, empty street in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Photo © Jack Newton, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In Mexico, the fluctuating world economy had very different effects. With strong ties to its NAFTA partners, Mexico suffered heavily during the worldwide economic crash, and a considerable number of Mexican immigrants living in the United States found themselves out of work. In 2012, the Pew Research Center found that in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, more Mexicans were leaving the United States than coming into the country, a surprising shift in what had been decades of unrelenting northward migration.

People don’t move to Costa Rica to make a fortune. They move there because they want adventure or a better quality of life.Mexico’s expatriate community—which includes the largest number of Americans living outside the United States, estimated at as many as one million—was also affected. The anemic economy, coupled with increasing security concerns in Mexico, propelled many long-term residents to return to the U.S. and Canada, while sales in real estate dropped off in traditional expatriate communities like Ajijic, San Miguel de Allende, and Puerto Vallarta.

Even so, plenty of expatriates continue to live and move there. While Mexico may not have weathered the economic storm with ease, it is still a destination that appeals to people who are attracted to the country’s unique culture, the warmth of its people, and the relatively low cost of living. Today, Mexico’s expatriates aren’t necessarily looking to buy a second home or invest in the country; they choose it for the lifestyle. In San Miguel de Allende, where I lived for a number of years, expatriates own restaurants, bed and breakfasts, graphic design studios, shops, and art schools. While the entrepreneurial ambition may not equal what Shannon Aitken witnesses in Beijing, expatriates in Mexico don’t come to simply retire or live off the grid—they want to make a life in the country.

Erin Van Rheenen, a travel writer who has covered Costa Rica extensively, has seen similar changes to expatriates there in recent years as well. After 2008, she says, “Real estate sales to foreigners slacked off, and people in the U.S. hunkered down to weather the storm.” That doesn’t mean people have stopped moving to Costa Rica, but those coming now have a different attitude than their predecessors.

Van Rheenen says, “There’s a different feeling now—less ‘I want to chuck it all,’ and more, ‘How can I reinvent myself and my career in another place?’” As examples, she mentions expatriates she’s met in Costa Rica, like an American couple who bought a small parcel of land where they run a small farm and “live off the land,” and another expatriate pair who have launched a small enterprise brewing honey wine. However, as Van Rheenen explains, “Central America is not a hotbed of economic opportunity. People don’t move to Costa Rica to make a fortune. They move there because they want adventure or a better quality of life.”


So is the future a completely global job market, where professionals move as freely between Mumbai and Hong Kong as they do between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and entrepreneurs can launch a start-up as efficiently in Beijing as in Seattle? While the cultural challenges to moving overseas remain, it is certainly true that a wider range of people are finding ways to build a life and career abroad—whether that’s as a banker, a beach bum, or an entrepreneur.

← Read Part Three

Leave a Reply